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Review - "A Language of Spies" by Melisande Fitzsimons

Steve Spence

"A Language of Spies" by Melisande Fitzsimons, 
pub.  Crafty Little Press   24 pages

This might be a short collection but it’s jam-packed with intrigue, interesting information, surreal and dreamy interjections and a love of language which is enriched by its author’s bilingual dexterity.

In ‘I Love Disney’, for example, we have what I take to be a critique of the Blair government’s involvement with the invasion of Iraq which is melded with the language of sex and sexuality. One effect of this is strangely, if disturbingly, comic, yet the philosophical underpinning of ‘the argument’ is also strengthened by the ‘mixed language’, a critique of phallocentric posturing, perhaps, as well as supplying an estranged and slightly weird way of coming at things which is oddly endearing: ‘A genital / ‘show and tell’ is bombing lots of people. Masturbation in a / circle is likely to make things better.’

Fitzsimons has a gift for arresting openings which shift dreamily from subject to subject via wordplay and association in a manner which implies a throwaway shifting of perspective but is probably anything but. Thus, in the opening poem, ‘After Peter Gizzi’s Reading at Plymouth University’ we have the following stanza:

      When I think of “bardo” I think of Brigitte
      not the intermediate state of Buddhism
      your past is as mysterious as my death
      haunting like Easter. Erection is much
      easier to explain to a 4 year-old boy
      than resurrection.

Just think about how much is going on here, the cultural accretions coming from an inner conversation which can take the readers off in a variety of possible directions, stimulated by a particular ‘thought train’ into a reverie of their own. I love this quality in her work and there is a precision, oddly aided perhaps by an immersion in a second language, which is also filled with mystery and a meandering analysis. If I’m making this sound too cerebral, then this isn’t my aim, as this writing is filled with pleasurable moments which catch you unawares and get the juices flowing.

In ‘Cendrillon’ we have a variant on the Cinderella story which is undermining in several ways, visceral, irreverent, material and wonderfully scatological – ‘her arse covered in ash’ – while the ending implies something more earthy and sensual, rather than ethereal and fairytale(ish)’ –
‘and the shape of that foot / will make her silent on the night / when he follows the scent of her / as she makes her way back to the rats.’ I understand there may be more of these ‘retellings’ in the offing and I’m looking forward to that event with relish.

In a similar vein is ‘Mermaid’ which opens with another stunning line – ‘No man is worth cutting your tongue and tail for.’ This is a feminist poem for sure and one as filled with emotional intensity and feeling as it is with an implied critique. Feelings of revenge and jealousy are combined with empathy, something which the reader is also forced to encounter in these powerful imaginings:

      In my dreams, I rip her tongue
      and draw sand numbers for him 1-4-3
      as he walks on, unaware.

These are provocative poems which force to you feel and to think yet they are also technically artful and filled with a delicious use of language.

 ‘Unnamed’ and ‘Migrants’ both deal with the issues around people having to deal with aspects of estrangement and also with the difficulties often involved in the necessity of escape from either war zones or dangerous situations, but in a manner which combines a dreamy surrealism with harsh reality. Dreams, in fact, are a common theme in Fitzsimons’ poetry and weave in and out of her various narratives to great effect, whether in terms of sensuality or anxiety. Her poems are visceral, vivid and her engagement with the words on the page, produce some beautiful images even when these are occasionally mystifying and not immediately apparent: sometimes it’s good to ponder!

 In ‘Franklin’s Fall’ we have an example of a poem in which her research into an actual historical subject is filled with information and dark detail, where a reconsideration of past events leads to a different narrative emerging and in this sense much of her poetry has a political leaning:

      The sailors broke bones,
      sucked their shipmates’ marrow
      or were eaten by stronger crew mates
      hands sawed off at the wrists
      before they were even dead.

 ‘Barbers’ combines what I take to be a mix of an infatuation – wonderfully evoked – with a  dreamy fantasy in which a hardline religious orthodoxy is berated for what it is – patriarchal terrorism – within the context of cultural diversity and estrangement. It’s a prose poem, filled with intriguing detail which merges the personal and the political in a thoroughly entertaining manner, however dark the underlying themes. The final paragraph is simply beautiful and worth quoting in its entirety here:

      The barbers are like books – you smell them, they get you lost,
      don’t kiss them. Some days I can’t go past the salon, my heart
      races too fast. I still don’t know what I am looking for.

What a wonderfully enticing last line.

The final poem in the collection, ‘My One Hundred Years of Sleep’ is written in the first person and also has the feel of a dreamy reverie which, once again, has an arresting first line – ‘I radiate an animal smell that is new to me’, so we are immediately in the realm of expectation and perhaps of intrigue. There are snippets of what I take to be skewed, displaced memories – ‘My uncle on horseback tries to cut my hair / I threaten him with the gold nib of a fountain pen / and make him drop his knife’ and the skipping between wide-awake statements, such as ‘women are sunnier / it’s a question of skin and shadows’ and a more sleepy dreamscape make for intriguing juxtapositions which nevertheless avoid the more jarring interjections which can abound in this method. The writing is full of sensual material, smells, sights, sounds and her reference to Rimbaud feels perfectly at ease with itself, not deliberately placed in order to impress. Once again the final lines have an emerging (from sleep, from the dream state?) feel to them, elemental , questioning and full of strange presence – ‘Would daylight hurt my eyes / if I opened them? / will I wake up under water / blowing kisses to the surface?’ This poem reminds me of Kate Bush’s writing, sensual, puzzling, exploratory and filled with a strange richness.

This collection has certainly been worth the wait and Melisande Fitzsimons is an emerging talent who I can’t help feeling we’re going to hear a lot more from.

copyright © Steve Spence 2019

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